A Bigger Splash (2016)

★★

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A Bigger Splash PosterDirector: Luca Guadagnino

Release Date: February 12th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson

Ever sat through a film that looked splendid, had winning actors winningly performing, bore intrigue and yet that made you want to claw your eyes out? A Bigger Splash announced itself in such a way to me, although to be fair its teeth-grating annoyance did eventually improve to a state of plain old manageable annoyance. The negative overlay has to do with a severe disconnect between viewer and three wholly unlikeable characters: filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) isn’t all that aggravating — probably because he looks eternally fed up with his predicament — though the same cannot be said for rocker Marianne (Tilda Swinton), music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and student Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

Marianne and Paul’s quiet, idyllic Italian break built around sun, sex and relaxation gets interrupted suddenly by the screech of phone call and the whoosh of aeroplane (it’s a metaphor). On the other end of the line is Harry, Marianne’s pal and former lover, who is calling to let her know his plane is about to land at the nearby airport. He has brought his daughter with him, for some reason. More significantly, Harry brings raving obsession, with Marianne first and foremost, but also with rambling — for two hours, the guy is physically unable to hold his tongue. He seems fittingly well-versed in the island’s community, at one point hilariously showing up at a resident’s house just to try their risotto.

It isn’t initially clear how the four know each other thus interactions are racked with awkwardness, though that doesn’t stop Harry mouthing on about how he once served the Rolling Stones. These introductions are inelegant also because Marianne cannot speak — she is a rock star and rock stars have to go on voice rest, though she does eventually wispily chatter when the film realises silent sex isn’t enough for somebody of Swinton’s calibre. She does at least get to don full Bowie-esque getup in flashbacks. Marianne’s beau, Paul, suffers from headaches brought on by medication brought on by a serious life event brought on by his ailing career, or something. Crucially, the headaches are not an issue at the start (remember Marianne can’t talk), only flaring up upon Harry’s arrival (remember Harry can’t shut up).

The latter’s daughter, Penelope, is moody, scheming, and unpredictable (and then entirely predictable). An age issue suggests miscasting; Johnson, otherwise, doesn’t have much to do apart from laze around. The four characters spend most of their time lazing around in truth, often naked — the camera lingers but does so exclusively — as they wind each other up about their respective troubles and life philosophies. You can see what the screenplay is going for, that feeling of rising tension and impending drama, but the underlying menace reaches boiling point after 30 minutes and only starts to subside thereafter.

What begins as an odd pseudo-romantic endeavour becomes something else entirely, a would-be thriller if the film was at all thrilling. Its musical inclination — the suggestion is that Marianne and Harry were once big partners in sound and debauchery — beckons A Bigger Splash towards a more drugged-fuelled narrative, perhaps something akin to Kill Your Friends. In fact, that comparison pits Fiennes in the wrong film: his self-serving, self-destructive nature is far more suited to the Owen Harris flick. He does commit to the role admirably, delivering a performance buoyed by genuinely creepy eccentricity, but the horridness of Harry means Fiennes is constantly fighting a losing battle for sympathy.

Despite all that, there is a small hint of intrigue going on in Luca Guadagnino’s retreat escapade. Without giving anything away, you do find yourself awaiting a genre shift towards a more mysterious tone, and when said shift does inevitably arrive it feels right in a story sense. But it’s also very abrupt and too late in the game, therefore the movie concludes before character reactions reach full formation and story arcs can be suitably sewn up. I’m not against open-endedness (quite the opposite; as a fan of Lost, unanswered questions are right up my street) but the film’s overlong buildup renders the eventual pay-off a tad undercooked.

Potentially rewarding themes attempt to break through the superficial limelight, nods towards a clash of cultures and the obliqueness of fame for instance, but none of these make a true mark. In the end, it is all a bit celebrity Mad Dogs without the desired amount of madness or dogged captivation. There is nothing to chew on and nobody to root for. The only splash here, unfortunately, is one into shallow water.

A Bigger Splash - Johnson & Fiennes

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Spectre (2015)

★★★★

Spectre PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (UK); November 6th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Thriller

Starring: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography was all the rage at the Oscars earlier this year, and Hoyte van Hoytema has tapped into the technical furore. Spectre begins with a Birdman-esque gallivant through a musty Mexican city, hollow drum beats slowly drowned out by the fluid orchestral waves of Monty Norman’s classic Bond theme as proceedings manoeuvre away from Day of the Dead festivities and towards 007’s (Daniel Craig) ensuing mission. Bond shoots at his target, Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), causing an enormous explosion that ought to terminate the wrongdoer. But just when you think it’s mission complete, Sciarra escapes. We momentarily meander back into the slow-moving parade before barrelling skywards aboard an out-of-control helicopter.

Director Sam Mendes is clearly having fun playing with our expectations, teasing tonally and pacing-wise. It is a super sequence in mechanical terms, but also a celebration of Bond: throughout the five-minute long take we see spying, shooting, surviving, and seducing. And, deviously, the film eliminates a would-be model Bond villain in record time — at one point the camera catches Sciarra looking like a cross between Jaws and Raoul Silva.

The main title montage then springs into life, this particular incarnation both encapsulating and artistically rich, affording meaning to Sam Smith’s otherwise uncertain lyrics. Perennial opening credits creator Daniel Kleinman delivers a montage that is all about retracing familiar steps, and Spectre does a lot of backwards walking. Bond, no longer in favour at a spatially revamped MI6, finds himself working outwith the espionage structure of government moderniser Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), aided covertly by Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw).

The film is an entirely different prospect to Skyfall; this, in many ways, is Bond back to basics. Somewhat shunned by the morose undercurrent of its predecessor, Spectre revisits the franchise’s sly vein of humour. Ben Wishaw continues to grow into the role of Q, his pinpoint comedy timing affording the character greater charm. We dash all over the globe, though admirably the outing never succumbs to the artificial sheen of a travel brochure. Snowscapes make a comeback — there’s something to be said for beautiful blanket-white mountain locales and Bond often speaks fluently in this regard.

Just when you think the film won’t eclipse its previous action set piece, an even bigger and better one explodes on screen. Heck, we even get a hulking villain in Hinx, the bruiser given personality by Dave Bautista whose terminally arrogant-cum-ominous grin suggests total control. He brawls with Bond aboard a train in a punch-up that looks and sounds brutal — words such as vigour and pulp spring to mind as you begin to think Hinx might actually be a Terminator.

Some shots could have easily been borrowed from a Sergio Leone western, prompting quite the departure from what is otherwise a modern espionage jaunt. These pit Bond as the ageing gunslinger, a field agent feeling the brunt of a very real existential crisis provoked by Denbigh’s mechanical tactics, but also an operative who is still able to get the job done. Taunted by Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) who, like Denbigh, is also plugged into the new world, Bond must confront the ghosts of his past in order to remain operationally relevant.

See, while reviving the franchise’s historical spirit, Spectre also roots itself in present day amenities. Denbigh is the corporate stooge infecting our treasured institutions, the guy who wants to take MI6 “out of the Dark Ages”. He heads up the Centre for National Security, or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” as M (Ralph Fiennes) puts it, a base designed to undemocratically scrutinise the globe. His vision is all-encompassing, a desk-based surveillance system that identifies and eliminates potential targets. Keyword: potential.

As Bond battles enemies in the field, seeing Fiennes and Scott engage in a dual over career politics is a warranted change of pace and one that never ceases to intrigue. A paranoid air arises based on the premise that any misstep might be critical, and this trope no longer only applies to Bond. The argument relayed by the old guard, essentially, is that espionage is too cloudy to be conducted in an impersonal manner.

This clash between old and new also incorporates Waltz’s Oberhauser, though the less said about him the better. He struts on screen encased in a cloud of shadow, Hoytema’s cinematography imbuing the character with immense mystique. We know exactly what Christoph Waltz looks like and yet we can’t help but wonder what sits beneath the darkness. Interactions between Oberhauser and Bond are few and far between and you do find yourself yearning for more, but perhaps the restraint employed by Mendes and his team of writers (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth all contribute) is what funds the tantalising energy surrounding both men.

Romantic (or unromantic) strands are still odd and awkward to sit through, especially in 2015. Bond’s infallibility when it comes to courting women remains a key characteristic that is tough to get along with, though his relationship with Lea Séydoux’s Madeleine Swan is at least sort of understandable — Madeleine is, after all, the daughter of spy. His fleeting flirtation with Monica Bellucci, playing a grieving widow, isn’t quite as logical.

A word finally on Daniel Craig, who looks like he is once again enjoying himself after the stunning solemnity of Skyfall. Spectre may or may not be his last tux session. Either way there is no denying the actor’s quite remarkable achievement since donning the attire in Casino Royale: imperfectly humanising a foolproof iron man. I’m not so convinced viewers these days aspire to live the life of Bond, and that is a good thing.

Spectre - Daniel Craig

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Columbia Pictures

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

★★★

TGBH PosterDirector: Wes Anderson

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (UK); March 28th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Drama

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson rustles up his films to appease a desired taste and The Grand Budapest Hotel, despite its universal recognition on the awards circuit, is another fine delicacy. That’s not a bad thing, especially if you’ve previously been a fan of Anderson’s work. Cards on the table: I haven’t seen enough to really form a stalwart opinion on the director. Moonrise Kingdom was a charm-fest and although The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t quite match up for my inexperienced liking, it is still a fun one hundred minutes.

This is the story of a much admired hotel concierge and his invaluable lobby boy. Not for the first time we watch a Wes Anderson flick that is tremendously well crafted, with everyone from prolific cinematographer Robert Yeoman to those in the costume department really pulling up trees to make the outing a visual feast for the audience. It rattles on without so much as a chink, fluent and meticulous in full flow. Walls are painted the right shade of blonde or pink to suit the mood at any given moment, and we watch the madness unfold as if perched on a stand measured to a ninety degree angle with the utmost precision (at one point a character fixes a lopsided painting to maintain this custom).

The piece is a real gem to look at — you could easily spend the entire run-time focused on how minor details play out in the background without as much as a glance towards the immediate plot and still be pretty satisfied. Different aspect ratios are employed at different points in the film, from the older traditional 4:3 to current traditional 1.85:1. It’s fairly enjoyable watching hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his young partner in crime Zero (Tony Revolori) scamper around, but the purpose of the varying ratios gets somewhat lost as time passes.

There is an almost slapstick element to the film, one that totally suits its colourful, comic-ey surroundings. Every movement is overly emphasised, from running with knees aloft to plate-setting. The characters are all sky high on the eccentric scale — Tilda Swinton appears as an elderly lover and we even get Harvey Keitel in especially nutty convict form. The sheer volume of famous faces that show up, many of whom only appear for a scene or two, is a testament to Anderson’s strongly regarded reputation around acting circles, as well as the jovial atmosphere apparently present on set. This star-studded Hollywood collective helps fund a comedic tone — funniest when it breaks the mould with common insults (“that little prick!”; “who’s got the throat-slitter?”) as opposed to long-winded monologues, some of which can be a tad egregious.

And The Grand Budapest Hotel can be difficult to get into, simply because the screenplay’s ferocious nature doesn’t offer as much as a breather for the audience to adjust and then readjust. It might be a personal thing, in fact it almost certainly is, but the constant velocity can be off-putting (despite it enabling much of the sharp humour). As a viewer, you’re either strapped in and along for the ride or still weighing up the height of the roller coaster. For me it’s a bit too tall.

Much of the film’s allure emanates from the charismatic Gustave, played brilliantly by Fiennes. Fairly short of previous comedy chops — he was part of In Bruges, though his performance in the Martin McDonagh piece was far darker — Fiennes is quite the surprise here. He gets the funniest gags (“you know the drill then? Zip it”) and the actor plays the popular Gustave with an amusing air of receptive non-discrimination; he engages with everyone equally, from jail mates to lobby boys to militant inspectors.

Tony Revolori is a fine assistant to Fiennes on screen, and the two strike up quite the odd chemistry. Members of Anderson’s large cast move in and out of shot as if through a revolving door — Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Léa Seydoux all show face, to name but a few. The film isn’t as fun when we’re not watching Gustave and Zero in tandem, but thankfully they’re together for most of the piece.

The question remains: is there anything going on beneath the surface, or is it all just that — surface? The director doesn’t appear too fussed about incorporating deep meaning and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. He is more than an aesthetic filmmaker, as evidenced by the humour on show here, but his approach does to an extent alienate those without wholesome affection for it. There isn’t really a plot, rather a whole host of five minute segments incorporating many different Hollywood stars.

As such The Grand Budapest Hotel is an enjoyable spectacle, rampantly good fun on occasion, but not much more than that.

TGBH - Fiennes and Revolori

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures